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date: 08 February 2023

Crime Control, Community Relations, and Barriers to Community-Based Reforms in Policingfree

Crime Control, Community Relations, and Barriers to Community-Based Reforms in Policingfree

  • Kevin PetersenKevin PetersenDepartment of Criminology, George Mason University
  •  and Danielle S. RudesDanielle S. RudesDepartment of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University


Efforts to prevent crime often involve high concentrations of police presence in disadvantaged minority communities. When combined with aggressive enforcement and proactivity, these efforts may negatively affect police–community relations. There is often a tendency to view community relations and crime reduction as discrete goals; however, citizen cooperation is an important component of efficient crime control. Policing strategies that incorporate problem-solving and community involvement show promise in their ability to simultaneously reduce crime and improve community relations. Despite the growing number of police agencies that report implementing these strategies, however, police–community relations have not shown widespread improvement. Organizational frameworks help to identify factors that might lead police agencies to prioritize enforcement and crime control over community relations, as well as the organizational barriers to effective community-based reform. A reliance on efficiency and centralized authority, resource dependency, and symbolic legitimacy all may help to explain police agencies’ lack of effective community-based reform efforts.


  • Policing

Policing Disadvantaged Communities: Crime Control and Community Relations

While the goal of crime prevention is alluring, proactive policing strategies are not without their consequences. In practice, proactive policing often involves increased enforcement of low-level offenses, aggressive investigatory tactics, and proactive stops targeted at select high-crime communities (Fagan & Davies, 2000; Levine & Small, 2008; Weisburd & Majmundar, 2018). Given the overlap between crime and social and economic disadvantage, targeted areas are frequently characterized by high concentrations of minorities and families living in poverty. Thus, marginalized groups may become subject to disproportionate contacts with the police, particularly those that are punitive in nature (Crutchfield et al., 2012), perceived as unfair (Brunson & Weitzer, 2009; Carr et al., 2007), or conducted in ways that erode public trust in the police (see Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; Tyler et al., 2014). This convergence of factors contributes to what Braga et al. (2019) described as “the policing paradox” (p. 549), or the seemingly contradictory statement that high-crime communities may be both over and under policed.

There is a traditional belief that the police can do little to control crime (Bayley, 1994). Criticism surrounding the effectiveness of the standard model of policing, which is characterized by a reliance on unfocused and reactive crime control strategies, has been widespread (see Goldstein, 1990; Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Kelling et al., 1974; Weisburd & Eck, 2004). Yet, recent decades have witnessed an unprecedented rise in police proactivity and innovation (Telep & Weisburd, 2012), and with it an accumulation of evidence to suggest that what the police do matters (Weisburd & Majmundar, 2018). Tactics such as hot spots policing (Braga et al., 2019; Sherman & Weisburd, 1995), disorder policing (Braga et al., 2015; Kelling & Wilson, 1982), community-oriented policing (COP) (Gill et al., 2014; Skogan, 1998), and problem-oriented policing (POP) (Goldstein, 1979; Hinkle et al., 2020) are now staples of police proactivity, many of which have shown promise in reducing crime and disorder.

A critical element of this paradox concerns the quality rather than the quantity of police presence. Experiences with procedurally unjust encounters (Tyler, 2003; Tyler et al., 2014), racial discrimination (Fagan & Davies, 2000; Weitzer & Tuch, 2005), and a deep history of perceived mistreatment at the hands of the police (Kane, 2002; Kahn & Martin, 2016) are all factors that contribute to strained police–community relations. Despite the ever-present need for police services, residents in high-crime communities may not believe that police care about their well-being or engage in genuine attempts to solve the community’s problems (see Brunson & Weitzer, 2009; Cheng, 2019). Thus, “the central tragedy is that these communities that are subject to the most aggressive enforcement and harmful policing strategies, and who have the least confidence in the police, are also the most dependent on their services” (Braga et al., 2019, p. 549). In other words, the communities that are most in need of police presence are also those that may be least willing to cooperate with the police and view them as legitimate (see Brunson & Wade, 2019; Regoeczi & Jarvis, 2013; Rocque, 2011; Tyler, 2004).

From the viewpoint of crime prevention alone, a lack of community cooperation is an obstacle (see Braga et al., 2019; Tyler, 2004). The cooperation and testimony of citizens is needed during criminal investigations and prosecutions (Dawson & Dinovitzer, 2001; Roberts, 2010). Citizen involvement has been linked to improved police decision making (Bullock, 2014), and research suggests that community members are collectively capable of controlling crime within their own neighborhoods (Kelling, 1988; Sampson, 2006; Shaw & McKay, 1942). For instance, programs such as neighborhood watch groups, which involve cooperation and communication between the police and citizen groups, have been shown to produce deterrent effects on criminal offending (Bennett et al., 2008). Researchers also find associations between a community’s level of “collective efficacy” (Sampson et al., 1997, p. 918), or the general willingness of residents to take action for the greater good, and levels of violent crime (see Armstrong et al., 2015; Mancik et al., 2018; Sampson et al., 1997).

Thus, given the importance of community relations for both the prospect of crime control and the values of democratic policing, it is imperative that police agencies prioritize tactics shown to be effective on both fronts. In a recent review of the extant research on proactive policing tactics, the National Academy of Sciences panel on proactive policing (see Weisburd & Majmundar, 2018) concluded that both COP and POP show promise for improving public perceptions of the police. Noting this, Braga et al. (2019) suggested that the police may be able to simultaneously address crime and community relations by employing proactive policing tactics focused on community involvement and collaborative problem-solving. Despite these recommendations and accumulating findings, however, police–community relations have only worsened in recent years. Citing a nationally representative Gallup poll, Cheng (2019) noted that as of 2015, public confidence in the police in the United States hit its lowest level since 1993. These observations beg two related questions: First, if there exists a blueprint for how policing agencies might concurrently address crime control and community relations, why are these strategies not being implemented more prevalently? Second, if they are, what is preventing them from being effective on a larger level?

While there are likely a multitude of answers to these questions, this article examines them from the perspective of various organizational frameworks. It first examines the organizational factors that might lead police agencies to prioritize enforcement and crime prevention over community relations despite the importance of community relations to crime control efforts. It then proceeds to describe the types of policing tactics that show promise in addressing both issues. Finally, this article discusses the organizational characteristics of police agencies that may inhibit effective evidence-based reform before closing with a discussion of the role that organizational factors play during program implementation.

Goal Specificity in Policing: Rational Systems and Crime Control

Police organizations are often viewed as rational systems (Jones, 2008). Rational systems are those structured to achieve a fixed goal and to do so as efficiently as possible (see Weber, 1946). Efficiency in this regard is associated with time and cost, and thus efficient operations do not necessarily translate into effective outcomes (see Jones, 2008). Rational organizations are associated with constrained formalized structures and goal-specific management (Scott & Davis, 2007). As such, rational organizations are simply tools used to produce a specified output, where the efficiency of these outputs is enhanced though a hierarchical structure and top-down decision making (see Langworthy, 1986; Taylor, 1919; Weber, 1946).

For the police, goal specificity is connected to crime control (see Kelling, 1988). This represents a legalistic orientation toward policing with a focus on enforcement activities (Wilson, 1968). Much of what police organizations do is directed at efficiently controlling crime through “apprehending criminal suspects as quickly and effectively as possible” (Robinson, 2003, p. 79). Kelling (1988) suggested that traditional policing can be summarized by the following dialogue: “What is the police job? Fighting crime. How do they do this? Patrolling in cars, responding to calls for service, and investigating crime” (p. 2). Consistent with a rational systems framework, police organizations are drawn to equilibrium or an unchanging state of behavior that is dominated by a centralized “top-down” (Jones, 2008, p. 451) command and control structure. Synonymous with this structure has been the image of the police as crime fighters rather than community collaborators (Jones, 2008). For instance, there has been long-standing concern among police practitioners that community-based reform efforts may have the police “concentrating on the wrong priorities” (Kelling, 1988, p. 5).

Thus, under a traditional framework, the efficient pursuit of crime control is unrelated to community relations. For police agencies to focus on “the prevention or reduction of crime and disorder” (Weisburd & Majmundar, 2018, p. 1), they must first focus on predicting who will commit crime, where crime will be committed, and when crime will be committed. Robinson (2003) argued that this predictability complex leads to the consideration of extralegal factors that may contribute to the disparate and disproportionate treatment of disadvantaged communities. Indeed, the implementation of enforcement-based proactive policing strategies such as “stop, question, and frisk (SQF)” (Rosenfeld & Fornango, 2014, p. 96) and broken windows policing (Wilson & Kelling, 1982) has been associated with the discriminatory treatment of disadvantaged minority citizens (Fagan & Davies, 2000; Herbert, 2001; Howell, 2015). This issue is exacerbated by the fact that many police agencies employ performance metrics emphasizing the quantity of criminal justice outcomes. For example, the “crime numbers game” (Eterno & Silverman, 2012, p. 1) places value on arrests, criminal incidents, and overall crime rates. This not only creates incentive to engage in more police activity, it also perpetuates “mythical” (Crank & Langworthy, 1992, p. 361) ideas regarding the importance of these activities. Concerted efforts such as these may produce efficiency but not effectiveness and fail to appreciate the complexity involved in policing high-crime communities. Ironically, these rational approaches may result in “irrational criminal justice policy” (Robinson, 2003, p. 78).

This observation yields yet another policing paradox. In the effort to efficiently prevent crime as rational systems, police agencies may behave irrationally. As Braga et al. (2019) suggested, crime control and community relations are not independent endeavors. For the police to perform effectively, they must view the production of crime control as a joint effort with their external environment (Dietz & Mink, 2005; Jones, 2008; Kelling, 1988). While the concept of rational systems may be an organizational explanation for the prioritization of crime control over community relations, it also underestimates the complexity of this goal. In other words, crime control is not as simple and specific as rational perspectives might suggest. Rather, it is a complex goal requiring more than targeted police activity alone.

Goal Complexity in Policing: Open Systems, Crime Control, and Community Relations

While police organizations are traditionally viewed as rational systems (Jones, 2008), there has been an evolution of thought concerning the degree to which these organizations are constrained by outside forces (see Crank & Langworthy, 1992; Langworthy, 1986). Scholars have begun to recognize that the complexity involved in policing is more representative of natural or open systems frameworks (see Dietz & Mink, 2005). Natural system perspectives acknowledge the importance of the human element within organizations such that the autonomy and activity of street-level workers have important implications for organizational performance and policy (see Barnard, 1938; Lipsky, 1980). Similarly, the open systems framework recognizes the permeability of organizations to their external environment, as well as the need for organizations to be responsive to this external environment to survive (Dimaggio & Powell, 1983; Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Morrill & McKee, 2014). In this way, there is no singular consensus goal of natural or open systems, and there can be multiple perspectives about what an organization should be doing (see Crank & Langworthy, 1992).

In the context of policing, the performance and goals of police agencies are not solely dependent on directives from the police chief or central authority. Crank and Langworthy (1992) suggested that “assessments of police activity that employ efficiency and effectiveness criteria have limited utility in understanding the structures and activities of a police department” (p. 341). Instead, there is a reciprocal relationship between internal policy, the external environment, and the performance of street-level patrol officers, with all of these factors contributing to the way that policing occurs on the ground. For instance, Dietz and Mink (2005) argued that police departments cannot operate separately from the social and cultural perspectives that make up the environment surrounding the organization. Moreover, they argue that the culture of a police department draws influence from the culture of its surrounding environment (i.e., social, political, environmental, etc.). Accordingly, the more permeable the boundaries of a police organization become, the more it becomes influenced by the context and cultures surrounding it. Jones (2008) echoed a similar sentiment, suggesting that external and organizational environments often affect each other and that because of this, the field of policing cannot be viewed as external from the community in which it operates.

Thus, the performance of a police organization is affected by the community it serves, whether these effects are intentional or unintentional. Where the police do not identify or prioritize community relations as a goal, the impact of the external environment on police performance is likely detrimental. In the simplest sense, communities that distrust the police present barriers to the effective and efficient pursuit of crime control. For example, one of the most salient pieces of evidence during a shooting investigation is the cooperation of eyewitnesses (Braga & Dusseault, 2018; Regoeczi & Jarvis, 2013). Across 50 interviews with urban male minorities, Brunson and Wade (2019) found that legal cynicism stemming from negative perceptions of the police led to a reduced willingness to cooperate with police during investigations. Likewise, Regoeczi and Jarvis (2013) found that, contrary to more affluent communities, the presence of an eyewitness during homicide incidents had little effect on the likelihood of an arrest in neighborhoods with concentrated disadvantage; that is, many of the “same neighborhood conditions that allow criminal activity to flourish may also interfere with the identification, apprehension, and prosecution of suspects” (Regoeczi & Jarvis, 2013, p. 984). When community perceptions of the police suffer, the minimal result is that the community becomes a barrier to the effective performance of police work.

When leveraged appropriately, however, community members may become an effective crime prevention tool. Sampson et al.’s (1997) seminal work on neighborhood collective efficacy suggests that when community residents possess high levels of social cohesion and are willing to intervene for the greater good, neighborhood violence can be significantly reduced. There is further evidence to suggest that collective efficacy may be related to community perceptions of the police such that higher perceptions of police legitimacy lead to higher levels of collective efficacy and greater cooperation with law enforcement (see Kochel, 2012, 2018). Efforts to improve community perceptions may also facilitate cooperative neighborhood policing programs that exert independent effects on criminal behavior. For instance, in a meta-analysis of 12 studies evaluating neighborhood watch programs, Bennet et al. (2008) found that such programs reduced crime by as much as 16%–26%. Reductions such as these may be attributable to both an increased flow of information between the public and the police as well as through an increased level of social control exerted by the community itself (Bennet et al., 2008). Regardless of the mechanism, a cooperative public is an asset for police organizations’ crime control efforts.

There is also reason to believe that the relationship between the police and their external environment is reciprocal; that is, the way that the police treat community members affects the way that community members respond to the police, and in turn, the problems and performance issues that the police must address (see Dietz & Mink, 2005). Jones (2008) argued that there are complex interactions between individual police officers and their external environments that shape organizational outcomes. Even a seemingly simple event like the arrest of a minority resident may generate complicated responses such as community and political unrest (Dietz & Mink, 2005). These responses become increasingly magnified as the severity of the event increases, as can be seen in numerous police use-of-force incidents across the United States and Europe (see generally Bonilla & Rosa, 2015; Slooter, 2021; Smith, 2017; White & Malm, 2020).

Whether communities serve to facilitate crime control, become barriers to crime control, or create entirely new problems for police agencies to address, the effects of communities on police organizations are inescapable. In contrasting the traditional view of police organizations as rational systems with that of natural or open-systems frameworks, it is important to remember that “a police department that has uniform standards—one size fits all solutions—may never be able to meet the differentiated needs of individual nodes” (Dietz & Mink, 2005, p. 6).

The dual paradoxes—that high-crime communities are both over and underserved by the police (Braga et al., 2019) and that the rational systems approach to crime control produces irrational outcomes (see Robinson, 2003)—both signify a need for community involvement and increased service style approaches to policing (Wilson, 1968). Crime control is a complex goal that involves both what the police do, what the community does, and the interaction between the two. In describing the traditional model of policing, Kelling (1988) suggested that the police exist to fight crime by investigating and responding to incidents. However, Kelling also proffered that the role of citizens in this model is “supporting police by calling them if trouble occurs and by being good witnesses” (p. 2). Thus, Kelling acknowledged the salience of the community in fighting crime, even from a traditional policing framework. Given the importance of both elements for controlling crime and disorder, it is critical to determine how police agencies might be able to police disadvantaged communities while simultaneously fostering community involvement.

Open Systems Policing: Community-Oriented and Problem-Oriented Policing

Policing within an open systems framework requires the use of tactics that consider the dynamics of both internal and external environments (see Dietz & Mink, 2005). In their consensus review of the extant research, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel on proactive policing (see Weisburd & Majmundar, 2018; Weisburd et al., 2019) suggested that both problem-oriented policing (POP) and community-oriented policing (COP) demonstrate consistent improvements in community perceptions of the police (though the magnitude of these improvements is small at times). Additionally, research on problem-solving strategies has demonstrated consistent crime reduction effects, at least in the short term. Braga et al.’s (2019) recommendations to increase the effectiveness of policing in minority communities also align with the interpretations of the NAS panel. Specifically, they suggested “coupling problem-oriented crime-control efforts with complimentary attempts to increase community engagement and enhance procedural justice” (p. 537). To understand what these suggestions mean and how POP and COP may be incorporated, however, it is important to understand what these strategies entail.

COP is often conceptualized as a policing framework rather than a specific tactic, one that involves community partnerships, organizational transformation, and community problem-solving (see Skogan, 2006). In other words, COP is an approach that requires the police to work in a collaborative fashion with the community, utilizing their views and experiences to define and understand problems (Gill et al., 2014). COP is also a departure from the rational systems view of police organizations in that it calls for decentralized decision-making, increases the amount of time police spend on foot within a community, and forces the police to become increasingly accountable to the communities they patrol (Maguire & Katz, 2002; Sadd & Grinc, 1996). Due to the fluidity of community problems and the necessary elements of COP, however, it has been considered an ambiguous concept. Thus, it is often difficult to determine whether police agencies claiming to have adopted COP have truly done so in the spirit of the framework (see Maguire & Katz, 2002).

POP similarly involves elements of problem-solving and encourages community partnership (Goldstein, 1979). POP has been considered a cyclical process that begins with the police identifying a problem, analyzing the root causes of that problem, developing a response to the problem, and then assessing the effectiveness of that response (often referred to as the scanning, analysis, response, and assessment [SARA] model; see Eck & Spelman, 1987). At each stage of the POP process, police are encouraged to utilize and partner with community organizations, community members, and other available resources to define problems, determine their causes, and understand how best to respond to them (Goldstein, 1979). Thus, while COP and POP are distinct proactive policing frameworks, there is a considerable amount of overlap between them. It is not uncommon to see both approaches implemented simultaneously (see Maguire et al., 2019; Tilley, 2008), and both approaches involve service style policing strategies intended to engage residents and community members (see Wilson, 1968).

If evidence indicates that COP and POP approaches (or some combination of community involvement and problem-solving) strike an appropriate balance between crime reduction and community relations, why then are police agencies not implementing these approaches? Perhaps the most striking observation when examining the relationship between policing reform, crime prevention, and community relations is that many police departments have, in fact, implemented COP programs. However, this has not appeared to translate into widespread improvements in community relations (Cheng, 2019). As Worrall and Zhao (2003) noted, COP became the dominant theme in law enforcement during the 1990s, and since 1993, the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) has allocated approximately 14 billion dollars to local law enforcement agencies for COP implementation and community relations (Cheng, 2019).

Kelling (1988) suggests that there are three primary reasons for the widespread transition to COP, or the organizational “drive to change” (p. 3). First, the traditional model of policing fostered community disenchantment with police services. Community residents became frustrated by policing tactics that further separated officers from the communities they served and reduced awareness of local norms and values. Second, empirical research on preventative patrol, rapid response to calls for service, and investigative work began to suggest that these approaches had little effect on crime, fear of crime, or satisfaction with the police. Third, patrol officers became frustrated with their role in the traditional model. Many officers felt that they were not making a difference by responding to the same addresses repeatedly, and that patrol was the “dumping ground” (p. 4) for officers who were not viewed as worthy of higher-level positions.

Based on these observations, one might assume that the field of policing would have reoriented toward a prioritization of community relations and that police organizations would have begun embracing their external environments. Yet in 2015, despite the widespread funding and adoption of COP and initiatives to address community relations, public support for the police reached its lowest point since 1993, the year in which the COPS Office was founded (Cheng, 2019). What could explain these seemingly contradictory developments? How could police departments have further disengendered their surrounding communities while attempting to do the opposite? This observation yields yet another paradox; police agencies have increasingly adopted tactics intended to improve community perceptions, and yet the result has been a deepening divide between the police and the communities they serve.

The remainder of this article explores this relationship by examining organizational issues that may be responsible for thwarting the proper implementation of COP reform, as well as external factors within the organizational environment that contribute to a lack of notable reformation progress.

Barriers to Community-Oriented Reform: Implementation Failure and Goal Conflict

Just as the traditional view of police organizations as rational systems may contribute to a narrow goal-specific mentality toward crime prevention, it may also hinder community-based reform efforts. From a natural systems perspective, input from frontline workers and consideration of informal group dynamics are both important considerations during program implementation (Taxman & Belenko, 2011). The actions and attitudes of these frontline workers carry immense weight, and indeed the decision-making patterns they engage in “effectively become the public policies they carry out” (Lipsky, 1980, p. xiii, emphasis in original). In this regard, organizational reform “involves surmounting several organizational challenges, such as staff hesitancy . . . preference for using professional judgement . . . and a lack of familiarity with the service landscape” (Taxman et al., 2014, p. 178). Additionally, successful implementation often requires a translation of the principles involved in reform efforts into the beliefs, problem definitions, and solutions used by frontline workers rather than discrete changes to their behavior alone (see Nutley et al., 2003).

These considerations are frequently absent during the implementation of community-based reform efforts, however. Jones (2008) noted that when police administrators implement community-oriented policing (COP), there is often a desire to bureaucratize the process for the sake of predictability. Without consideration of frontline officers’ perceptions and beliefs, however, Jones argued that there will be a reluctance to change. This is because the informal processes, ideas, and needs of frontline officers often go unrecognized. Ultimately, when police executives fail to consider these factors, “the agents of the system will view the change as a stimulus throwing them off balance . . . the organization will move back to its dominant attractor and equilibrium” (p. 451).

Implementation issues such as these are apparent in discussions with frontline officers working within agencies attempting reform. In qualitative interviews with police officers and civilian employees, Kalyal et al. (2020) developed seven themes that respondents identified as barriers to strategy implementation. Among these themes was a lack of buy-in from employees, including “a disconnect between top management and frontline officers” (p. 123). This lack of buy-in also contributed to low levels of officer morale stemming from their exclusion in decision-making processes. Respondents cited a lack of communication concerning the rationale and reasons for the strategy implementation, elements that are often viewed as necessary for effective program implementation (see Nutley et al., 2003; Taxman & Belenko, 2011).

Research specific to the implementation of COP initiatives suggests a similar picture. Sadd and Grinc (1996) reported on the primary implementation difficulties for eight urban and suburban U.S. jurisdictions undergoing transition to a neighborhood-oriented policing program. Using survey, interview, and observational measurements, Sadd and Grinc noted that the primary barrier to effective implementation appeared to be resistance from officers. Specifically, they discussed a limited awareness among frontline officers concerning the goals of community policing, which is likely attributable to a lack of proper communication in the early stages of the project. Interviews with frontline officers also indicated poor understanding of concepts such as problem-solving and interagency cooperation, and officers expressed doubt that COP would be more effective than traditional policing models. These findings point to a common disconnect between visions of reform at the upper levels of police management and the communication and reception of those visions among lower-level employees. This disconnect is critical given that “successful implementation of community policing will be compromised if officers do not fully understand community policing” (Lurigio & Skogan, 1994).

In order to address the issues associated with top-down approaches to COP reform, many COP proponents speak to the necessity of altering management styles, with expanded roles for middle managers and increased communication with frontline officers (see Gill et al., 2014; Maguire & Katz, 2002; Wycoff & Skogan, 1994). However, analyzing survey responses from U.S. police agencies, Maguire and Katz (2002) noted that agencies who reported implementing COP often did not report corresponding changes to the activities of mid-level managers. Activities such as redesigning the organization to support problem-solving efforts and allowing mid-level managers to make final decisions regarding resource application and solutions to community problems were among the most infrequently reported activities. In contrast, the most frequently reported changes were those involving patrol officer and organizational activities, including the implementation of education and community resource programs, working with city agencies, etc.

The difficulties associated with COP reform within highly centralized organizational structures can be usefully contrasted with examples of successful implementation. Wycoff and Skogan (1994) provided a case study on the implementation of a COP management style in the Madison, Wisconsin Police Department. This management style was designed in direct consideration of the issues associated with community policing implementation in “command-and-control style” (p. 371) management frameworks and involved an emphasis on teamwork, problem-solving, employee input, and feedback. The belief was that citizens would be better served if the needs of officers were first satisfied. Accordingly, the program operated under the motto “Closer to the People: Quality From the Inside Out” (p. 373). Wycoff and Skogan used longitudinal survey measurements to examine the effect of this management style on officer and community attitudes. Results indicated that the new management style was associated with significant increases in work satisfaction and organizational satisfaction, and that these findings translated into greater receptivity to change and receptivity to problem-solving. Community surveys also indicated that attitudes toward the police and perceptions of crime within the community improved during the course of the study.

Thus, the benefits of a more humanistic approach to COP implementation are not limited to the internal fidelity of the program, but also the fidelity to the external environment. Given that COP and problem-solving approaches largely necessitate interagency collaboration and community involvement, the external environment plays a large role in the implementation of these strategies (see Hinkle et al., 2020; Sadd & Grinc, 1996). In Maguire and Katz’s (2002) survey analysis of U.S. police departments, departments implementing COP programs were more likely to report changes to patrol officer and organizational activities than changes to citizen activities. Activities such as allowing citizens to participate in reviewing complaints against the police, allowing citizens to evaluate police performance, and allowing citizens to contribute to policy development were among the most infrequent activities reported in these survey responses. Similarly, Sadd and Grinc (1996) noted that one of the largest barriers to COP implementation in their study was a lack of interagency collaboration and community involvement. Many departments continued to view COP as a police endeavor, and there was often little attention paid to educating or involving community members.

It is important to note that police efforts to involve outside agencies and community members may also be met with resistance. Sadd and Grinc (1996) found that historically poor relations between the police and citizens, fear of retaliation, and conflict between community leaders and residents hindered the formation of police–community partnerships. Similarly, observational analyses of police–community meetings often indicated that there were fundamental disagreements in the way that police officers and community members defined and solved local problems (see Cheng, 2019; Cooley et al., 2019). Describing one such meeting, Cooley et al. (2019) noted frustration among police officers and detectives as to the lack of community cooperation during investigations, but also “exhibited scant interest in why the criminal justice system lacks legitimacy” (p. 235). It is likely that developing these relationships takes mutual time and effort. Gill et al. (2018) suggested that nonenforcement-based problem-solving strategies may take longer to materialize but may be more effective when they do, and Sadd and Grinc identified a need to train community members in COP strategies. While there is no foolproof way to ensure the smooth implementation of COP and problem-solving initiatives, it is clear that the organizational struggle to maintain traditional hierarchy and centralized authority has limited effective COP implementation.

The provisions presented also assume that police agencies pursue community-based reform with the intent of proper implementation. However, open system frameworks recognize that organizations have a need to survive and that often this need may be met through the acquisition of resources and legitimacy (Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978). Pfeffer and Salancik’s (1978) resource dependency theory asserts that organizations strive to free themselves from resource-related constraints, and that where resources exist, organizations may alter their behavior to gain access to them. Under this framework, organizational behavior is not a product of traditional or rational efficiency, but instead “most formal organizations . . . are oriented toward survival as a primary goal” (Morrill & McKee, 2014; see also Hannan & Freeman, 1989).

Extant research provides support for the notion that resource acquisition may become an additional goal that drives policing reform efforts. Katz et al. (2002) used a combination of official data sources to examine factors predicting the adoption of specialized gang units by large municipal police agencies in the United States. Results indicated that the presence of external funding was among the strongest predictors of gang unit adoption. These findings are particularly relevant given widespread financial efforts taken by government agencies to incentivize the adoption of COP in recent decades. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) has distributed upward of 14 billion dollars in funding to local law enforcement agencies for COP implementation since 1993 (Cheng, 2019), providing an abundance of potential resources for departments willing to alter their behavioral patterns. Noting this, Worrall and Zhao (2003) analyzed multiwave survey data from 700 U.S. police departments to track the reported adoption of COP alongside the availability of COPS Office grants. Worrall and Zhao found that COPS Office funding was significantly associated with COP implementation, even after controlling for demographic, crime-related, and regional variables.

Organizations might also wish to maintain highly centralized and bureaucratic structures while appearing responsive to external environments, even when those goals are conflicting. As the external environment begins to create pressure on organizations to behave in certain ways, organizations may change their behavior in order to be viewed as legitimate (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983). In other words, where social or political pressure to adopt community-based reform exists, police agencies may feel obligated to portray an image of reform that is consistent with this pressure, as doing so allows the organization to appear responsive to the desires of the social and political environment. This process is known as “institutional isomorphism” and “promotes the success and survival of organizations” (Meyer & Rowan, 1977, p. 349). However, these actions are only “ceremonial displays” (Crank & Langworthy, 1992, p. 360) that are symbolic in nature. The organizational behavior that takes place on the ground may not change in ways that are congruent with the expectations of the reform. When this process occurs, organizations are considered “loosely coupled” (Orton & Weick, 1990, p. 203), implying that the actions of frontline workers are only loosely connected to the stated goals of the larger organization. This disconnect creates an organizational buffer between frontline workers and organizational leaders (Monahan & Quinn, 2006) and may allow organizations to appear formally legitimate in modern environments while maintaining their traditional structures (see Mastrofski et al., 1987; Meyer & Rowan, 1977). In the context of policing, Maguire and Mastrofski (2000) suggested that agencies may strive to “look like other police agencies, to look like other innovative agencies, or to avoid being punished for not doing what is widely accepted as the right practice” (p. 11).

Institutional isomorphism provides yet another conflicting goal for police agencies in the pursuit of community-based reform. Crank and Langworthy (1992) suggested that the “fundamental interest in survival leads police departments to accede to the demands of other actors on whom departments depend for legitimacy” (p. 339). In turn, these “treaties between contending legitimations” (Crank & Langworthy, 1992, p. 339) ensure consistent flow of resources to the police organization.

In their survey analysis of U.S. police departments, Maguire and Katz (2002) found that claims regarding COP implementation were often loosely coupled with claims regarding the specific activities taking place on the ground. For instance, patrol officer and organizational activities showed the strongest association to general claims about COP implementation, while citizen and mid-level manager activities were reported less often. Importantly, multivariate analyses also indicated that the size of the department and the region within which the department operated influenced general claims about community policing. Maguire and Katz suggested that larger agencies in certain geographic regions may “operate in a more turbulent political and social environment, and thus it is more difficult for them to claim that they do not engage in community policing” (p. 528).

Burruss and Giblin (2009) also found evidence of isomorphism in COP implementation. Analyzing survey responses from U.S. police agencies, they noted that institutional pressure—a factor representing the degree to which agencies reported being influenced by or modeling their COP implementation after other agencies or outside resources—was among the strongest predictors of COP adoption. The only factor that was a stronger predictor of COP implementation was geographic location, further suggesting that external factors are involved in the adoption of community-based reform efforts. While still presumptive in nature, the results from these studies suggest that “organizational decisions are shaped, at least in part, by the larger environment” (Burruss & Giblin, 2009, p. 346).

Cheng (2019) noted similar issues in his analysis of police–community meetings in Chicago, Illinois. While the purpose of these meetings was to allow community members to express their concerns to the police in a public forum, 74% of the citizen complaints voiced at these meetings were met with silence from the police. Furthermore, when police were not silent, their responses followed identifiable scripts that signified incongruencies between the way that the police and citizens viewed local problems and their solutions. Cheng contended that while both police and citizens relied on such scripts, the police’s tendency to remain silent about citizen complaints, along with their ultimate authority to decide on problem responses, served to reinforce the existing social order. He considered this as a form of “perfunctory policing” (p. 171), or policing in which agencies are resistant to substantive change but superficially comply with such change to achieve and maintain the appearance of legitimacy. Thus, the symbolic compliance of police agencies to external demands may allow them to mask rational structures underneath a cloak of legitimacy. However, it may also create a barrier to effective community-based reform. One respondent in Kalyal et al.’s (2020) qualitative study on barriers to strategy implementation in police departments considered this trend a “bandwagon effect” and referenced a prevalent mentality of “if it’s not worth doing half-assed, then it’s not worth doing at all” (p. 125).


This article takes an organizational approach to discussing the juxtaposition of crime control and community relations in policing and identifies theories that explain why efforts to simultaneously address these goals often fail. While this discussion represents only a brief overview of the extant literature, the hope is that it sheds light on the salience of organizational structures and goals in shaping the behavior of police organizations. These organizations often have complex, competing, and conflicting goals that create barriers to the proper implementation of evidence-based reform (see generally Lum & Koper, 2017). The classic view of crime prevention as a specific and discrete goal that can be achieved most efficiently through formalized rational structures has contributed to a neglect of community relations. While police departments should dedicate genuine attention to both internal and external environments, resistance to change, the need to maintain appearances of legitimacy, and the need to acquire resources further complicate this picture. At the same time, blindly responding to the demands of the external environment can lead police departments away from those goals that are most salient to their work (see Meyer & Rowan, 1977), and it remains important to critically analyze goals and be open-minded about the most appropriate ways to achieve them.

In closing, there remains a need for more research on the organizational barriers to community-based reform in police agencies and ways to overcome them. While research on implementation science provides useful context (see Taxman & Belenko, 2011; Taxman et al., 2014), this work has primarily focused on corrections agencies. Community-based reform in policing incorporates the external environment in a way that is unique from many strategy implementation processes, as the community becomes a coproducer in crime prevention. Evidence increasingly suggests that these strategies can be effective in reducing crime and improving community relations (Braga et al., 2019; Weisburd & Majmundar, 2018). However, the moderating effects of the organizational environment remain largely unknown. The argument here is not that police agencies overtly circumvent the proper implementation of community-based tactics or that they do not value community relations. Rather, policing is a difficult and complex field with varying goals, and there has been far too little empirical research on the organizational barriers to these goals. As current events continue to elevate police–community relations to the forefront of public discourse (see White & Malm, 2020), answering these questions becomes increasingly necessary.

Further Reading

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  • Worrall John, L., & Zhao, J. (2003). The role of the COPS Office in community policing. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 26(1), 64–87.
  • Wycoff, M. A., & Skogan, W. G. (1994). The effect of a community policing management style on officers’ attitudes. Crime & Delinquency, 40(3), 371–383.


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